Inside Story: Is Compromise Possible on Handgun Data?
From Phil Williams:
First of all, truth be told, I have a bias in favor of open records that help shine the light on how well our government officials are serving those of us who pay their salaries.
On the other hand, I understand how law-abiding citizens may not want their personal information made easily available on the Internet for all to see. Having faced my share of threats, I know some folks have real concerns about their personal safety.
Which is why gun-rights advocates and open-government advocates should be able to come up with some common-sense compromises involving information about who has handgun permits in Tennessee.
Of course, there are some gun-rights advocates who think no one should have access to any of that information -- no how, no way -- and, for them, there's no sense even talking about compromise.
But others, like Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, have expressed an interest in finding middle ground -- which is where I find myself, professionally and personally.
For years, NewsChannel 5 has obtained a database of every gun-permit holder in the state of Tennessee. But, unlike other news organizations, we never considered posting the raw data on the Internet so that people could look up their neighbors. Weighing the potential benefit versus the potential invasion of privacy, we came down on the side of privacy.
What we did, however, was to responsibly use the data to expose how state government was failing in its responsibility to protect the public.
Using that database, we matched the full names and dates of birth of the permit holders against the full names and dates of birth of convicted felons from another state database.
Our investigation, "Gun Permits Issued to Convicted Felons," revealed how the Tennessee Department of Safety was failing to do proper background checks on those applying for gun permits. For example, one man had been convicted of a felony for shooting another man in the chest during an argument. He checked "no" to the question about whether he had ever been convicted of a felony, and the state never discovered any different. (Watch the video attached to this story.)
Tennessee's own safety commissioner told us, "I did not realize that we were issuing permits to convicted felons until you brought it to our attention -- I did not know that."
Please don't miss that point: the problem would not have been fixed if we had not had access to that database.
The safety commissioner did not know about the problem before our investigation.
Lawmakers did not know.
No one did.
Still, some gun-rights advocates say the Department of Safety has now fixed the problem -- and we should just trust the government to stay on top of it.
Ironically, some of the folks making that argument were among those who led the legislature's investigation into past mismanagement of the department. A lot of them cherish their gun rights because they don't trust government to protect them.
The fact is that some proponents of closing the records want to make sure that the public is kept in the dark about any negative aspects of the handgun-permit program. Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Pulaski, argued that even very general, statistical reports should be closed because that information "could be used against" the program.
But I'm convinced that most folks on Capitol Hill still believe in open, transparent government -- if it doesn't harm anyone.
So what's the minimum that journalists like myself need to keep an eye on how the Department of Safety protects the public?
We still need access to the database -- including full names and dates of birth.
That greatly helps us in determining possible matches with people who shouldn't be in possession of firearms. Dates of birth help distinguish, for example, one "John David Smith" from another person of the same name.
(Some argue that dates of birth should not be released because of possible identity theft. In fact, we all give out potentially much more damaging information every time that we use our credit cards or write checks.)
Then, if full addresses are not made available in the database, journalists need to be able to inspect handgun applications on a case-by-case basis.
It's always beneficial to be able to compare an address in a court file, for instance, with the address of the permit holder. And it's important to see whether the applicant disclosed a criminal history, perhaps with some explanation.
Yes, government should be doing those kind of checks, but sometimes governments fail. It never hurts to have other eyes looking out for the safety of our families.
If both sides of this argument will take time to listen and talk to each other, compromise is possible.
But a vote to completely close these records will, in the end, eliminate a key protection for the public.
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